Dr Amy Flaxman wept with happiness when she heard the news.
“I just cried immediately. It was a relief. It was exciting. We had all been working so hard up until that point.”
The revelation that Oxford University’s Covid vaccine was highly effective at stopping the virus hit headlines around the world. But it carried an extra layer of satisfaction for Flaxman, an immunologist in the team who helped create it.
“Obviously we had done a lot of work on the safety side of it,” she told HuffPost UK. “So the next question obviously was efficacy. So when that came, it was a sense of relief.”
The race to find a Covid-19 vaccine began almost immediately after the pandemic did. Around the world, teams of scientists downed tools, stepped back from their projects and set their minds on one clear goal: to find a jab that would put a stop to the virus that had brought life to its knees.
The University of Oxford – along with its partner AstraZeneca, a British-Swedish pharma giant – has been at the forefront of this quest.
Backed with an eventual £65.5m in funding from the government, scientists from the Jenner Institute and the Oxford Vaccine Group came together for an “all hands on deck” coronavirus vaccine mission, the size and scale of which had rarely been seen at the university before.
In normal times, people often work individually on different clinical trials, with some larger teams working on diseases like malaria, said Dr Sean Elias, a postdoctoral scientist. But in the battle against coronavirus, “everybody came together to work”.
“Lots of people were surprised that this pandemic happened,” he said. “But people who work in infectious disease and vaccine development always knew of the possible risks.
“We didn’t necessarily expect it in our lifetimes, but we knew the realities of the position we would be in if it did happen.”
But that understanding did little to lessen the sometimes punishing demands of working on a vaccine the whole world was waiting for as the death toll surged higher and higher.
The only clear exit path from the pandemic was a vaccine, which everybody knew. So you were aware of the responsibility.Dr Mustapha Bittaye
The Covid-19 vaccine trial was a “lot more intense” than previous studies at the Jenner Institute, said immunologist Dr Amy Flaxman, who has also worked on Ebola and influenza trials.
“We worked on the MERS coronavirus trial previously and that started with just 24 participants,” she said. “These Covid trials have hundreds and thousands of participants, so the volume of everything was much greater.”
It was “all hands on deck” when the trial started, she said. “It was a complete change from March to April this year within the lab.
“It was very hard work, but a lot of the time, because it was one team working on one thing, we all pulled together and got on with it.”
This translated into early mornings, late nights and weekends in the lab, with some people working 10 days at a time without a day off.
“In the first stages of the trial, some people were working very, very late,” Elias said. “I think the latest some people were working to was 3am.”
There was an incredible sense of responsibility among researchers, explained Dr Mustapha Bittaye, a postdoctoral scientist.
In the midst of the unprecedented impact of the Covid-19 outbreak, scientists were in a race against the virus, he said. “The only clear exit path from the pandemic was a vaccine, which everybody knew.
“So you were aware of the responsibility. It’s a virus that is very contagious and very deadly.”
Bittaye added: “Knowing what you are doing is going to benefit wider society makes you focus more and makes it more intense.”
On top of all of this pressure was the knowledge that, if someone on the team was to fall ill with Covid-19, it could set back the whole trial.
“Hand washing is something that you do all the time in the lab anyway,” Bittaye explained. “But you were doing it knowing that if one of your colleagues caught the virus, the whole team was going to isolate. So we were even more careful and we gave it so much attention.”
Like in many other workplaces, wearing masks, social-distancing and preventing teams from crossing over was also key.
But to Bittaye, it was remarkable that, despite the huge impact the pandemic had on the world, much of the work he was doing was similar to any other trial – if not on a much larger scale.
“To be honest, one striking thing I have found about working on this trial is that it’s actually not something we have not done before,” he said.
Among his many responsibilities on the trial was the antibody testing of volunteers’ samples, a task also carried out by Flaxman as part of her own varied role.
“In the past, I never knew that all the things I was doing was like a warm up for a bigger thing,” he said. “I never knew that everything I had done before was the exact same thing that I had to do for this trial and was so important.”
It’s hard to overestimate how much the results of the Oxford Covid-19 vaccine trial mean to the people who have worked on it with such singular focus and dedication over the past months.
On November 23, Oxford University and AstraZeneca published the much-anticipated efficacy data for their vaccine – news that made headlines around the world.
Results from the study suggested an average efficacy of 70% – but this figure rose to 90% when volunteers were given half a dose of the vaccine during the first of their two injections.
A lot of people think there was a Eureka moment when everyone on the trial realised or was told how well the vaccine was working, explained Elias, who has focused on public engagement and media relations during the pandemic.
But in reality, it was only the most senior people on the project who knew the figures before they were released to the public.
“On the day that the efficacy data was announced, I found out 8am that morning by my girlfriend waking me up and going: ‘Your efficacy data has been announced.’ I checked my phone and I realised I needed to rush into work as quickly as possible,” he laughed.
“Most of us – apart from the most senior people and the person in charge of the communications – found out that morning. It was exciting.
“Obviously we had indications and had some of the data, but the closely guarded secrets were kept among the core team so there were no issues of leaks or anything like that.”
It was a “sigh of relief” that defined the moment for Bittaye too. “Looking back, it was a huge moment for everybody. I never thought in my career that I would be involved in something like this.”
On December 30, Matt Hancock announced the Oxford jab would be rolled out to the public from January 4.
It means the vaccine these scientists worked so hard to design and test in 2020 will change history alongside the Pfizer/BioNTech jab, which was administered to the public for the first time in December.
But if there’s one thing Bittaye wants people know about the team that worked on the Oxford vaccine, it’s that they’re not geniuses – but passionate people determined to help others.
“I think it’s important to hear from people [working on vaccine trials] and share their stories,” he said. “Their stories will be key in inspiring people to pursue a career in science, but also to believe in themselves.
“It’s about passion, it’s not about being a genius. The only thing we have in common is passion for what we are doing and as Gallileo said: ‘Passion is the genesis of genius’.
“So if you have a passion for something, the sky is the limit. You can do whatever you want. We are not a bunch of geniuses coming together to develop something.
“We are a bunch of passionate individuals who have one goal – to deliver a vaccine to end a pandemic that has affected so many lives and so many livelihoods across the world.”